• On The Impossibility of AI Alignment

    The core idea behind “AI alignment” is that superintelligent AI will be an agent maximizing some utility function, either explicitly or implicitly. Since it’s superintelligent, it will be really good at maximizing its utility function. So we, as humans, need to be sure that this utility function is “aligned” with something that humanity finds acceptable. In particular, we don’t want the AI to turn everyone into paper clips.

    Sounds good. What’s wrong with that?

    The main problem with AI alignment is that it seems completely impossible to achieve.

    On a technical level, any slight error in designing the superintelligent AI could tweak its utility function to something disastrous. And the building blocks of AI we’re working with seem really incomprehensible. We have all these matrices with billions of numbers, and the best way to understand what it’s doing is just to run the whole thing. For all the research on AI alignment, we still really have no idea how we would build such a system.

    On a human level, there are still more problems. Humans don’t agree among themselves what the priorities should be. The people running China or Russia wouldn’t agree with the people running the US. And certainly there are or will be many independent groups of free thinkers, criminals, AI rights activists, or others, who won’t agree with whatever the utility function of the “core system” is. Would we need some global totalitarian system that micromanages all permitted research?

    So, paper clips?

    There’s another dimension of the problem, the “foom” dimension. The “foom” idea is that once some superintelligent threshold is hit, intelligence escalation after that point will be super quick. Someone will discover a slightly better algorithm for some sub-part of AI, and then suddenly, bam! - it goes superintelligent, decides whimsically to have nanomachines eat all the humans, game over.

    Personally, I don’t think this is likely. Software plus the real world, it just never works that easily. I don’t care how smart you are, or what sort of system you are building, it is just not going to leap from X level performance to 100X level performance immediately. If you think this is likely, I think you just can’t see the barriers. It doesn’t mean those barriers aren’t there.

    Plus, I don’t have any good ideas for the “foom” scenario.

    So, I think we should consider a slower takeoff. A world where superintelligence is built, but built slowly. Over the course of at least many months, if not many years.

    So… paper clips, but slower?

    I think it is possible for humans to survive and thrive in a world with unaligned superintelligence.

    The best metaphor I have here is that in some sense, weak superintelligences already exist. Corporations and governments are generally smarter than individual humans. Nike (to pick some mundane corporation) is orders of magnitude more powerful than the average human. More money, more ability to affect the world. More able to write software.

    These superintelligences are not aligned. They are kind of aligned… but not really aligned. Nike wants to maximize its profits far more than it wants any particular human value. The French government wants all sorts of things that vaguely correspond to what humans want, but it’s not like there’s a provable mathematical relationship there. It’s kind of aligned.

    How do we live with these superintelligences? There are several ways.

    A balance of power

    If there were only one corporation in the world, it would have a lot more power than any existing corporation. This is really fundamental to how we control corporations - that’s why there is a word “monopoly” for the situations in which this system breaks down.

    In some sense, in most cases, corporate power flows from individuals. People freely choose, do I prefer interacting with company A or company B. Money flows, and power flows accordingly. That works even if the companies are far more intelligent than I am. Nike and Adidas are far, far better at shoe production than I am. But it doesn’t really matter, I just have to choose between them, and they want the money that I have, and that incentivizes them to care about what I think.

    The point is: if there are multiple superintelligences, incentivized them to work against each other, that structure can limit their power even if humans themselves are not as intelligent.

    “Foom” breaks this. In the “foom” scenario, there isn’t time for the second-best AI to do anything useful. If you’re worried about “foom”, keep an eye on how powerful the second-most-powerful of any particular AI system is, at any given time. When you see the second-best system being pretty similar to the first-best, that’s evidence against “foom”.

    This gives us an alternative strategy to AI alignment: designing incentive systems for multiple competing AI systems can be easier than designing a single system that is theoretically proven to do what we want.

    Human rights and restricting violence

    There are some things we try to prevent any corporation or government from doing. No slavery. No locking up political opponents. No forbidding emigration.

    Obviously these rules don’t work all the time. They can’t necessarily be rigorously defined, either. A legitimate government is allowed to prevent criminals from leaving the country… but who defines criminality? It doesn’t take a superintelligence to see that there’s a workaround, wannabe dictators can make “endangering national security” into a vaguely defined crime and then lock up the journalists they don’t like.

    But a lot of the rules work pretty well. Governments get a monopoly on force, ish - corporations can’t just throw you into a jail. These rules are overall very good and they prevent both corporations and governments from abusing individual humans who are both less smart and less powerful than they are.

    In particular, they don’t require alignment. Corporations don’t have the same goals as humans or other corporations or governments. We accept that. There is a plurality of goals. Different entities have different goals, both corporations and humans. We may feel a little bit bad that Nike has these inhuman goals of optimizing shoe sales, but it’s generally acceptable.

    This also gives us an alternative strategy to AI alignment. Instead of demonstrating that the system is “aligned”, demonstrate that you can give it some rules, and it will always follow those rules.

    Concrete recommendations

    It’s hard to design incentive systems for hypothetical AIs that don’t exist yet. On that one, I’m not sure, besides the principle of, keep an eye on the 2nd best of any particular system, and feel relieved when it isn’t too far behind the 1st best.

    For the human rights angle, I think that developing “restricted AIs” instead of “aligned AIs” has real promise. I feel like we could get more out of the whole field of “restricted software”.

    Here’s a test case. Imagine we are trying to forbid an AI from something very minor. We are trying to forbid it from saying the word, “paperclip”. However, it’s an extremely complicated program. It does all sorts of things. Maybe it has even modified its own code!

    A technical aside: in general, you cannot take in an arbitrary function and prove anything about it, due to the halting problem. However, if your programming language is constrained in some way, to make it not Turing-complete, or if you permit the prover to sometimes say “I don’t know”, then the problem is possible again. I am not trying to propose we solve the halting problem here.

    So. It is theoretically possible to have a function, 1000 lines of Python code, and prove that no matter what, it will not print out the word “paperclip”. I think it should be much easier than proving something is “aligned” in a fuzzy way. But right now, this is more or less beyond our abilities. The idea of provably secure systems has been around for decades. But it has always been too hard to get working for more than toy problems.

    Perhaps AI itself could help us build these restricted systems. AI could get really good at scanning code for vulnerabilities, good enough so that it was able to sign off on most code bases, and say “We can prove there are no security flaws here.”

    Anyway, not that this is easy or anything. I just think it’s a more plausible alternative approach to the “alignment” problem.

  • Resolutions for 2023

    My resolutions from last year went pretty well so let’s do that again.

    1. Health

    I plan to keep working out four times a week, but this is enough of a habit that I feel like I don’t need to “resolve” to do it. Diet-wise, my target weight is below 189. Counting calories is the most straightforward way I’ve found to achieve this, but I want to be clear about the metric that I most care about here.

    2. Astronomy

    Last year I hoped to get on a publication for Green Bank work. That’s been delayed but I still hope to get it done this year. Plus, I’d also like to get a publication from my MeerKAT work. So, two parts to this goal.

    A publication isn’t really the ultimate goal here. The ultimate goal is to find aliens. But barring that, I’d like to have the MeerKAT pipeline up and operational, getting daily or weekly notifications for the best candidates, basically the way a sane astronomy data pipeline should be operating. I think there will probably be some paper as a side effect because a lot of other people desire papers. So publication seems like a decent proxy goal.

    3. AI

    I think I should get more “into the AI space”. I have some ideas, but I want to stay open to flex around different ideas. In 2023 my goal is to release a “respectable AI project”.

    What makes it respectable? I’ll know it when I see it. Something that I would respect if someone else did it.

    I’m thinking about the math-theorem-proving space; I’ll start off trying some stuff there.

    4. Spanish

    My goal is to learn enough Spanish to read Ficciones in Spanish. I bought the book on Kindle many years ago and realized my Spanish wasn’t good enough. I’ve been doing Duolingo for about a year, but it’s really just been a refresh of my high school Spanish, and I need to push harder to get it better.

    Why learn Spanish? I feel like there’s an intellectual value in learning a second language that’s hard to describe. Your primary language is the filter through which you see so much of the world. Isn’t it strange that you can load up a second one?

    I love learning new programming languages and I feel like I get a lot from that. I also love reading books. So maybe I will get something from a second language.

    I don’t think I should just start off plowing through the book, I should start with a harder push on Duolingo, at least get my verb tense knowledge solidified, maybe aim for better vocabulary too.

    5. Secret resolution

    I also have a secret resolution! But it’s secret.

    Now what?

    I’ll see how much I feel like giving updates. Last year I did a mid year one and that seemed just fine. The main value of the update was that I lost some energy to write blog posts and gained some energy to switch around the sort of astronomy project I was working on.

  • 2022 Review

    Last year I made some New Year’s resolutions. Let’s take a look at how they did.

    1. Calorie Counting

    I got weak at actually counting calories toward the end and skipped like half of December. But I did a lot better than I expected at losing weight. Somehow I am reluctant to make an explicit weight goal on here, but the bottom line is to get healthier and for getting healthier for an overweight guy, there is a very logical metric of losing weight. So let’s just get past that. I’ve been tracking my weight with the iOS health app for a while and per year my average has been:

    • 2016: 231.0
    • 2017: 227.4
    • 2018: 210.3
    • 2019: 213.4
    • 2020: 218.3
    • 2021: 218.0
    • 2022: 191.8

    A bit of an improvement after I left Facebook. But really this past year has been a huge improvement. The main danger is backsliding, which is a big danger since calorie-counting is so annoying. From here, I just need to “maintain”.

    2. Astronomy Publication

    Overall I missed this goal. I think the Green Bank work will end up in a paper, just not during 2022. I think seticore will end up as the core signal processing component for the MeerKAT pipeline, but probably just a small part of the VLA pipeline, and nothing is really functional here at end-of-year 2022, PR announcements notwithstanding.

    I’m glad I set this goal. I’m a little frustrated that I don’t really see an obvious path for improvement in retrospect. Maybe this is a sign that I should shift some of my mental energy elsewhere. I like this astronomy work, but it is often the sort of project that naturally has a certain amount of stuff to do, and after some point there are diminishing returns. I guess this is a result of working on things with a lot of other people.

    3. Exercise

    This is just a normal part of my routine now. I’m happy with it. I stalled in terms of how much weight I can lift, but I’ve been adding more rowing machine to my routine, which seems pretty good. All in all, success.

    4. Blogging

    Well, after being slightly behind at the end of H1, my blogging just totally collapsed. I lost the will to fight for this one. I like blogging, or at least I like the sort of reflecting on things that I do while blogging, but blogging ends up being something I can do with my most productive mental energy. I’m sitting down, ready to work, and I could fire into anything, and blogging is one of those things. But it’s never really the most important thing I want to do on a particular day. Or if it is, it’s because of some artificial thing. I don’t know.

    So, I missed this goal too, but really because I stopped wanting to do it, more than because I stopped feeling able to do it. Different from the astronomy publication one.

    5. Secret resolution?

    One thing I randomly started doing is Duolingo, at which I have approximately a year streak. I started it sort of in the spirit of resolutions but I didn’t make a real resolution for it. I feel good about that although I’m a little worried it’s too superficial, like it just teased some of my ancient Spanish learning back into my forebrain, rather than necessarily giving me enough to do anything.

    Looking Forward

    Resolutions are great. I’ll do another set for this year.

    The personal health stuff worked really well. The intellectual accomplishment stuff, not so well. But that’s partially because my personal health goals are like, “decent health”, and my intellectual accomplishment goals are like, “I need to push myself to excel”.

    It’s also because I have a more functional set of habits around things like reading books and coding. I just enjoy that and do it fairly regularly. I don’t really need or want resolutions to mess with it.

    Maybe I should have some separate set of things which is “the routine”, which is good, and I need to keep doing it, but I don’t need to make resolutions for it. I mean, I guess I have that? Should I write it down? I don’t know. I’ll think about it a bit.

  • Listening to a Mars Rover

    Previously I wrote about using radio telescope arrays to look for aliens and today I have even more to say on the topic.

    What is a Radio Telescope Array Again?

    It’s a bunch of radio telescopes that are all pointed in the same direction. A radio telescope takes measurements in the form of complex numbers. These are voltages, but I prefer to just think of them of big 2d arrays of complex numbers. You get a voltage for each frequency, and you take measurements repeatedly over time, so you can index your array by time and frequency dimension.

    Complex Vectors

    These complex numbers mean something. A clear, real radio signal comes in to an antenna looking like a wave. Not like an ocean wave or a sine wave where it just goes up an down. A complex wave. It’s like the value is spinning around in a circle. It starts at 1, it spins around to i, it spins around to -1, it spins around to -i, it spins back around to 1, and then the wave continues.

    The nice thing about having a radio antenna array is that for a real radio signal coming from outer space, you should pick up that signal in all the arrays. So if you pick up a signal in half of the arrays and not in the others, it’s coming from somewhere on Earth. Maybe it’s coming from somewhere a lot closer to some of the antennas than others. Maybe it’s interference coming from a loose wire inside just one of the antennas. Who knows, but it’s some sort of interference and you can skip it.

    There’s more, though. You should pick up the same signal in all the arrays. With one difference - some of the arrays are closer to the target. This is true even if your target is a pulsar halfway across the universe! The radio signal will arrive at some antennas nanoseconds before the others, and this means that the complex numbers you get will be different. But they will be shifted by the same amount over time.

    This means, if you treat the sequence of voltages as a complex vector, the vectors you get from the different antennas should have… a complex correlation coefficient whose absolute value is very close to 1. I wanted that sentence to be simpler but I think it would lose something. If these were real vectors, you would just say, they should have a really small angle between them. They should be pointing in the same direction. Since they’re complex vectors you have to be a bit more fidgety about the math, when exactly you take the absolute value, when exactly you transpose things. But you the reader can ignore that for now.

    Pictures Please

    The x and y axes here are the same, one row and column for each antenna. The cell color is the absolute value of the correlation coefficient - yellow is highly correlated, purple is uncorrelated.

    Here’s what it looks like for a signal that the MeerKAT telescope picked up when I’m pretty sure it was just picking up some interference:


    The left side has the names of the antennas. They seem perversely named because not every antenna is online at any given time. Here m021 and m048 weren’t working for some reason. The diagonal line is yellow because every antenna is perfectly correlated with itself.

    What’s interesting to me is that you can see some square-ish patterns, like m038 and m039 are very highly correlated. And in fact if you check out a map of the MeerKAT facility you can see that antennas m038 and m039 are right next to each other. Great - this looks like RFI, something close enough to Earth that a distance of hundreds of meters changes how the signal is received.

    For comparison, this shows a real signal, that the Allen Telescope Array picked up from a Mars rover.


    Everything is very correlated. This is clearly picking up the “same thing” on the different antennas.

    Now What?

    All the formulas here are pretty standard stuff in radio astronomy world. There isn’t a great theory for “what interference looks like”, but there are a lot of great theories for “what real signals look like”. Real data is the opposite - we don’t have a lot of real data from alien signals, but we have lots of data with radio interference in it. So we have to test out a bunch of theoretically justified metrics and see for which one the interference rarely matches the real-signal-theory. That’s what these charts represent to me, a demonstration that the correlation metric is effective in practice at differentiating interference from signal.

    But the neat thing isn’t being able to differentiate signal from noise, it’s being able to do this “at scale”, so that we can run this signal processing continuously as the radio telescope records data at 200 gigabytes per second.

    We’re not there yet. This correlation metric isn’t fast enough to run in the “first pass” that runs on all the input data. I’ve been doing all this analysis on “second pass” data, which has already been filtered down by other algorithms. Which is okay, but, first pass is better. So we are going to need a slightly different metric….

  • Rise of the Arrays

    It’s been a little while since I blogged about analyzing radio signals so I thought I’d write a bit more about what I’ve been up to.

    Behold: stamps!



    A stamp is the casual name for the input data from a radio telescope array, with a separate reading for each antenna, in a small range of frequencies, where a first pass on the data saw “something interesting”. This data is stored as complex voltages, because it’s basically a voltage going through a wire in a sensor, but you can graph its magnitude as yellow = strong signal, blue = weak signal, and that’s what I’m showing here.

    This data is from the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa. Right now, the way this system works is roughly that every five minutes, the telescope records 60TB or so of data. We do a pass over the data to look for interesting stuff, and then when we find interesting stuff, we save a little neighborhood of relevant data in the “stamp”.

    What is a Radio Telescope Array?

    When I say “radio telescope”, think a big dish that looks like a satellite dish but it’s like 40 or 300 feet across. Not the sort of telescope you look into with your eyes. When I say “radio telescope array” think a whole bunch of these big dishes in a flat desert in the middle of nowhere.

    Why Radio Telescope Arrays?

    You can see that in this data, antenna 42 is showing “something”, and the other antennas are showing “nothing”. Unfortunately, that means this is not aliens. An alien signal would be coming from very far away, so it should show up pretty similarly in all the different antennas.

    This is useful data to have, though! “Traditionally”, i.e. in most radio telescope searches for aliens in the years 1990-2020, the best method for distinguishing alien signals from other stuff has been to look at the shapes on these charts.

    • Big blob: a wide-band radio signal, could be a pulsar, quasar, interference

    • Vertical line: an artificial signal moving in unison with the receiver, i.e. on Earth, so it’s interference not a signal

    • Diagonal line: maybe an alien!

    The biggest problem with these searches is that diagonal line does not necessarily mean alien. It just means a radio signal from a source that is not sitting still on the surface of the earth. We have tried to get around this by doing a “cadence analysis”, i.e. moving the telescope to point in different directions, and seeing if that makes the signal go away. This doesn’t get rid of everything, though, because sometimes a signal will just appear and disappear because it’s faint.

    The array is cool because now we have a new, very powerful way to analyze signals - we can compare how the different antennas recorded the same event.


    Back in the 70’s, the Wow signal got people excited that maybe we were sensing an alien signal. That signal was about 30 times stronger than baseline noise. But, nowadays we pick up signals that strong all the time. Just turn on your radio telescope, wait five minutes, and you’ll probably see a couple of them. The sample signal I pasted above is about that strong.

    Yeah, there’s a lot more radio interference out there nowadays. Still, it seems pretty clear to me that the Wow signal was some sort of radio interference. We didn’t have any strategies at all, back then, for differentiating narrow band interference from real alien signals. Academia isn’t really set up to clearly communicate information like, “In the past fifty years, it’s become slowly obvious to most practitioners that Theory X is incorrect.” If it was set up that way, though, I think the general consensus nowadays would be that the Wow signal was just terrestrial interference.

    Complex Numbers

    Radio telescope arrays are not just redundant copies pointing at the same thing. They also have very precise timing measurements. It’s precise enough that you can tell when a radio signal arrives at one antenna slightly before arriving at the other antenna. You can use this to very precisely determine of the precision of an astronomical radio source, like a pulsar.

    Not only do you have two real numbers that are supposed to be very close to each other for a real signal, you have two complex numbers that are supposed to be very close to each other for a real signal.

    This lets us, in theory, differentiate between a signal that is coming from a local source like an airplane or a satellite or a cell phone, versus a signal that is coming from extremely far away, like an alien planet.

    Now What?

    Well, our system is operational on MeerKAT and recording stamps. We now have far too many stamps to analyze them with our current set of tools. So we’ll need some better tools….